VICTORIA – The Gove Inquiry, looking at the horrific death of a little boy who should have been saved, was clear.
“Death and serious injury reviews should proceed promptly . . .” The Liberals and the NDP both supported Judge Thomas Gove’s recommendations for children and families’ reform.
Now it’s 10 years on, and a little girl is dead. Sherry Charlie was only 19 months old when she was placed in a Port Alberni foster home. Weeks later she was dead. Her foster father, Ryan George, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Sherry was battered to death.
It’s not just another sad story. Because before Sherry was sent to the home, there were warning signs. George had a long and violent criminal record, and was still on probation for spousal assault.
Sherry died in September, 2002. Two-and-a-half years later, no review of her death has been completed. The public hasn’t been told if any avoidable errors were made, or if it could be happening again as you read this column.
It’s a big commitment, taking on the responsibility for children. On any given day that’s the role the government – on your behalf – takes for some 9,000 children in British Columbia. It is difficult, but necessary. And it creates obligations.
We aren’t honouring those obligations, according to three people who should know. Former children’s commissioner Cindy Morton, children’s advocate Joyce Preston and former B.C. ombudsman Dulcie McCallum wrote Gordon Campbell nine months ago because they were worried that British Columbians no longer know how well the ministry is serving the people who desperately need its help. They wanted a confidential meeting, to talk about solutions.
But they never got a response, despite three follow-up calls over several months, and decided to release their letter publicly.
The Liberals eliminated the offices of the children’s commissioner, and children’s advocate in 2002.
Nothing would be lost, they said. The BC Coroner’s Service would take over investigating and reporting on children’s deaths. But the coroner’s budget was cut, and pressures mounted. The service hasn’t released a single review of child deaths, which were prepared every three months by the children’s commission.
A new position, the child and youth officer, was established to replace boththe children’s commission and the youth advocate.
It hasn’t been an adequate replacement. Officer Jane Morely may be active behind the scenes, and raised important concerns in her last annual report. But the public accountability has almost vanished.
It’s a serious loss. The children’s commission’s last annual report, in June 2002, found the ministry had acceptable care plans for only half the 9,700 children in care. It examined 107 cases in which children in care suffered critical injuries, and found half didn’t have adequate care plans, and many had been poorly placed in foster homes and moved frequently.
Are we doing better, or worse by those children today? We don’t know.
Gordon Campbell used to support the role of the children’s commission and the children’s advocate. He championed their work, and used their findings to hold the NDP government to account.
The Liberals have, by any reasonable standard, mishandled the ministry. Their initial plans for a 23-per-cent budget cut – obviously unrealistic – had to be abandoned, and the cuts scaled back (but not eliminated). A restructuring plan went wildly off-track, with the deadlines missed by years. Only in the last year has some stability emerged.
Those problems make it more critical that the public receive complete, independent reports on how the ministry is doing. It’s not a question of second-guessing frontline workers, or finding fault. It’s simply fulfilling our duty to children and families.
We – you and I – have taken on responsibility for some children in very tough circumstances. The evidence over the last decade is that government has great difficulty in meeting the huge challenge of offering them life and hope.
We need to know the job is being done right. And that means independent, public reporting.
Footnote: The coroner and ministry both say they will soon complete reports on Sherry’s death. Advocates have been pressing for answers for at least a year, including information on whether the pressure to reduce costs affected her placement, and whether her foster home was appropriate to her needs and adequately supported and supervised.
How do be sure you donÂ t end up like Terri Schiavo
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA – IÂ ve never met Terri Schiavo, her husband or parents. SheÂ s 41 now, and has been in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. in a Florida hospital bed.
Through most of that time the woman with a tube in her stomach has been at the centre of a legal tug of war. Should she be left to die, or kept alive? Who knows her best, loves her more? What would she want?
SchiavoÂ s husband says she always told him that she didnÂ t want to be kept alive artificially under these kind of circumstances. HeÂ s asked the courts to approve ending life support.
Her parents wanted Schiavo kept alive, arguing that is what she would want.
ItÂ s a terrible situation. But the courts, in 2000, and 2003 and again several times this year, heard from everyone involved and decided the feeding tube should be removed. That is what Schiavo would have wanted, given her condition. Barring a miracle, that would mean she would die within two weeks.
I pray I never have to face that kind of decision.
But I also pray that others will have the courage and love to honour my own views about when life has so little meaning that it is no longer worth preserving through heroic medical efforts. When it is time.
Schiavo is not being granted that kind of respect.
As the courts and family wrestled with this difficult decision, the U.S. politicians rushed into action. They knew little about Terri Schiavo, or what she wanted from her life and death. But they were undeterred by their ignorance.
The U.S. Congress rushed to Washington for a weekend session. President George Bush cut short a Texas vacation to sign a bill ordering another legal review of the courtÂ s decision. Everyone involved made their case on CNN, and the extremists grabbed their media moments. Schiavo as an individual was forgotten; she mattered only as a symbol.
It couldnÂ t happen here, ethics experts maintained.
But it could. Look at Evelyn Martens, who was arrested, tried – and acquitted – for aiding a suicide. The issues are much the same.
Or listen to the public discussions about the Schiavo case. A nice-sounding woman called into the CBC, to offer her view – based on nothing – that Schiavo would have wanted to be kept alive.
She went on. Even if Schiavo had specified in advance that she did not want to be kept alive, her wishes should be ignored, the caller said.
Some people believe suffering is part of GodÂ s plan, and should be embraced. Some want every medical measure taken to prolong life. Others have decided where they want to draw the line; where pain or emptiness or loss of meaning outweigh the drive to remain alive.
IÂ d never presume to make this decision for anyone else. But many people would, here as well as in the U.S.
You have an option. Decisions continuing life support, or undertaking desperate medical interventions, are complex. If the patient is unable to make the decisions – like Schiavo – B.C. doctors are required to turn to family members. But as the Schiavo case shows, that does not always provide clear answers. (And it also places family members in a difficult position.)
You can help help. B.C.’s Representation Agreement Act allows you to make a legally enforceable living will, setting out what kinds of treatment and life support you want, given different medical circumstances. You can also specify who should make the decisions on your behalf – a family member, or perhaps a friend if you wish to spare family the pain. (The Representation Agreement Resource Centre – www.rarc.ca – is a good information starting point. In some cases you may also need a lawyerÂ s help.)
WeÂ re not keen on contemplating our own deaths. But SchiavoÂ s plight – and the pain for all involved – shows that itÂ s important to decide on the way we choose to die, just as we choose the way we live.
Footnote: ThereÂ s something quite obscene about the rush by U.S. politicians to capitalize on this case. Thousands die and suffer needlessly every day without attracting their notice. The death of one woman who offers political advantage matters a great deal more, apparently.
Moving government jobs to the regions
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA – HereÂ s two stories that should have got more attention that they did, from the media and politicians.
First, the news that the B.C. government will open a resort development office in Kamloops.
Sure, itÂ s only 12 jobs. And the cynical may carp about attempts to boost the electoral prospects of Kevin Krueger and Claude Richmond.
But communities across the province should be applauding the move of even a small branch of government outside of Victoria and Vancouver.
Government delivers a wide range of valuable services to people, in return for tax dollars.
But it it only favors some communities with the benefits of stable, well-paid government jobs, and the indirect benefits of another significant player in the local economy. And it always rankles a bit to think that taxpayers in Lillooet, or Prince George, are paying the salaries of a big bunch of people in Victoria and Vancouver, money lost to the local economy.
Fifty years ago there may have been good reasons for centralizing government operations. It was efficient – even necessary – to have people in one place to cut down on delays and improve communication.
Things have changed dramatically since then, but governments have taken only tiny steps to acknowledge that the Internet and improved telecommunications offer the chance to move jobs around the province.
ItÂ s not easy, of course. For one thing employees arenÂ t keen on picking up and moving, and any change means some significant one-time costs. Those would be offset in part by the benefits of generally reduced office rent and other costs outside Vancouver and Victoria.
But why isnÂ t a big chunk of the forest ministry bureaucracy in Quesnel, or Prince George? (The government missed a chance last fall, when it announced new chief forester Jim Snetsinger would be based in Prince George, where he lived before the appointment. None of the support jobs moved up there with him.)
Why isnÂ t aquaculture development based in Courtenay, or Prince Rupert? BC Ferries in Nanaimo? Mining operations in Trail? The Liquor Distribution Branch in Kelowna?
The benefits to smaller centres are huge. ItÂ s not just the extra jobs. The government agency buys locally, and the employees become part of the community. ItÂ s a major plus, especially for communities that have seen government job losses over the last four years.
B.C.Â s smaller centres – especially forest communities – should also be preparing their case for a deal like the extended, expanded Fair Share agreement with communities in the northeast.
The NDP had agreed to come up with $12 million a year for the regionÂ s municipalities. The cash recognizes that they get stuck with the costs of a growing oil and gas industry, but little extra revenue. The wells are out in the boonies, and there are no big central facilities paying property taxes.
The government has just upped the money, promising $20 million a year, indexed to industry growth and coming up with a one-time $40-million payment
But if the Peace has a case, so do an increasing number of communities across the province, especially forest communities.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld acknowledged other regions might seek similar deals when he announced the funding. The government has promised to share offshore oil revenue with Coastal communities and First Nations, and would look at other proposals.
First in line should be forest communities that have lost their local sawmills as the industry consolidates in fewer, more efficient mills. They have a similar case to the communities in the northeast, being left with the need to provide services without any large industrial property base to tax. (Forest revenue to the province was 30- per cent over budget – $300 million – this year, so thereÂ s revenue to share.)
In both cases, the government has taken steps that advance the interests of communities outside the Lower Mainland in a real way. The communitiesÂ challenge now is to keep the changes coming.
Footnote: Neufeld also announced a new $2.5-million program to sell communities on the benefits of oil and gas and mining development. The “Communities and Stakeholder Engagement” program is likely to prove controversial the first time the government starts spending to promote a controversial proposal, like coalbed methane drilling.
B.C. needs to plan for a multicultural future
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA – It’s time to shed our Canadian politeness and talk a bit about how immigration and demography are changing our society.
StatsCan has just offered a sharp reminder of how big the changes are, forecasting that by 2017 one in three British Columbians will be members of visible minorities. In Vancouver, more than half the population will be visible minorities -they will be the visible majority.
We’re lousy at talking about these developments in Canada, for fearing of sounding unwelcoming or even racist.
But the kind of changes are sweeping, and affect every aspect of life in every community in the province. As a society, we need to be making more of an effort to make sure the new Canada works for everyone. Communities and businesses need to do some thinking about what the changes mean for them.
Immigration is a good and necessary thing. Given our aging population, and declining birth rates, we need more people to maintain our workforce and to continue to develop our economy. And given that we are almost all the descendants of immigrants, it would also be churlish to slam the doors shut now.
But the changes are still momentous, and reach across every area of our society.
StatsCan set out to look at the face of Canada in 2017 – only 12 years away. The coming changes are huge, and their impact far-reaching.
Consider one aspect, the impact on the labour force and employers.
In barely a decade, one-in-three people in the province will be members of visible minorities.
But the percentage in the workforce will be much higher. StatsCan notes that by 2017 the median age of the visible minority population will be 36, compared with 43 for the rest of the population.
Thanks to immigration, youth and higher birth rates, the minority communities will supply tomorrow’s workers. By 2017, for every 100 visible minority people old enough to retire, there will be 142 ready to start working. For the rest of the population, for every 100 people retiring only 75 will be reaching working age. Their base is shrinking.
We’re looking ahead to a very different workforce, in terms of first language and cultural values, and smart employers will be preparing.
Businesses need to consider the potential changes in their market. Today about 20 per cent of British Columbians are members of visible minorities. Substantial, yes, but not necessarily critical. But in barely a decade the number will double, from 870,000 to 1.7 million. Business that don’t understand the market, and respond effectively, will lose out.
Communities face their own issues. StatsCan projects almost all the visible minority population growth will be in Vancouver. Across B.C. the visible minority population will increase by some 900,000. About 80 per cent those people will be living in Vancouver. (That’s understandable. My grandparents came here from England, and settled in parts of Toronto where they felt comfortable, where red, white and blue bunting appeared on doors for important holidays.)
So if, as StatsCan predicts, one in four Vancouver residents will be of Chinese descent in 2017, it;s to be expected that newcomers from China will settle there.
But the implications for the rest of the province are significant. Communities need people, to start businesses and fill jobs and shop in local stores. If towns and cities outside the Lower Mainland are missing out on the largest source of population growth, they need to address the problem, stressing the quality of local schools, or cultural diversity or economic opportunities.
We’re skittish about all this, we polite Canadians. We have a vague, laudable commitment to multiculturalism and unity, but we don’t often pay much attention to the details of the lives of people who come here, and how they change the country.
But our society is changing, in dramatic and exciting ways. We have a chance to look ahead and make the very best of this opportunity.
Footnote: The reluctance of visible minority members to settle outside Vancouver should be a major issue for discussion. StatsCan projects that Vancouver will gain almost 800,000 new visible minority community members between 2001 and 2017. The province’s regions will gain 32,000 people. That’s not enough to revive communities already facing population losses.